Risca, Cwmcarn, Machen, Wyllie... all will feel the impact of reopening coal extraction in South Wales, warns local riders group.


The Wyllie mountain bike trails in South Wales could soon become unrideable, if plans to extract coal in the local area are approved. That’s according to a group of local riders, which says plans to sift through the old Bedwas tips that loom above the village of Cwmfelinfach, near Cwmcarn and Risca, will effectively close the fireroad climb to mountain bikes.

It could also impact one of the best natural mountain bike routes in the UK, taking in the Machen Masts trails and Cwmcarn, which uses the Wyllie fireroad climb.

ERI Reclamation hopes to dig out waste coal from the Bedwas tips and stabilise the ground to prevent any potential landslides, before returning the site to nature, permitting upland grazing. But some local residents are worried that processing and extracting the coal will steamroller the mountain bike trails there, while the process could potentially pollute the landscape further.

Satellite image shows the route of the proposed road, and the spoil tips in blue

“The impact is going to be huge, because so many people rely on mountain biking for their mental and physical health,” explained Joanne Atkinson, who’s spearheading the community efforts to stop the works.

“People come from all over to ride these trails, and at Cwmcarn and Risca… No one is going to want to come to the Valleys and choke on coal dust,” Joanne says. “The impact on the environment is going to be catastrophic too, the water pollution, the air pollution, the noise, the destruction of precious wildlife and habits.”

ERI’s planning statement insists removing the coal will not result in ecological harm, while leaving the site as it is present a fire risk due to the high content of compacted coal present. Doing nothing could also present a hazard to local water supplies, with toxic water allowed to flow unchecked through what is effectively industrial waste, and there’s a further risk the tips could collapse. ERI also reported that maintaining the status quo would prevent natural drainage and pose a danger to wildlife recovery too.

“There is going to be disruption, but we’re trying to give the community back a much improved environment,” explained Piers Thomas from ERI. This also involves working alongside user groups like riders and walkers to mitigate the disruption, and he says there’s a fund set up to help. “We would dedicate a 360 excavator and dump truck to assist these users, because what we want to do is ensure the trucks can travel safely and that the cyclists are aware of this.”

The Wyllie locals make their views plain

Wyllie Bike Park

The Wyllie mountain bike trails, or Wyllie Bike Park as it’s known to many riders, is a network of natural singletrack that’s been pieced together over the past 30 years. The land is managed by NRW, while the trails themselves are steep, technical and probably some of the best riding in South Wales… which really is saying something.

They’re not official in the same way the Risca trails are though, and therein lies the problem. To remove coal from the Bedwas tips is a big operation and requires monster-sized equipment to mine, wash and extract the coal. The only way in or out cuts straight across the Sirhowy Valley Country Park on forest tracks and past a community farm, newly erected covid memorial, and of course the access road for Wyllie riders.

“They want to dismantle the tips and build a wash plant and processing plant, which is where a third of our trails run through,” Joanne told me. “Losing the trails will be bad, but it’s nothing to the impact this will have on the environment though, the water run off will leach industrial chemicals into the valley,” she said.

“At the moment they’re saying they want the 8% of the tip that’s coal, with the remaining 92% spread over the common moorland.”

ERI insists the environmental impact will be minimal, with bowsers stationed along the route down to remove the coal dust, and trained ERI drivers rather than contractors doing the heavy lifting.

Clearly it’s a complicated issue, with local residents voicing genuine concerns that the local area will become degraded during the operations, which ERI says could last from 3.5-5 years. With 40 ton trucks thundering down the fireroad every 20 minutes and an industrial coal washing plant high above the towns and villages below, it’s easy to sympathise with Joanne Atkinson. There’s a petition to stop the works, which you can put your name to here.

Sign up to the petition to help protect the Wyllie trails

What happens next at Wyllie

Before we all jump the gun though, the proposals have yet to reach the planning application stage, with ERI currently undertaking what’s known as a pre-application consultation. Caerphilly County Borough Council said in a statement that we’re not at the planning stage yet:

“Firstly, it is important to stress that no permission has been granted for any such reclamation scheme to progress. Indeed, if such a major project was to go ahead, it would be subject to detailed scrutiny and public consultation as part of the formal planning application process.

“A scheme of this significance would also be subject to approval and permissions from a range of other statutory agencies before any work could start.

“At this moment in time, no formal planning application has been submitted to the council, however we are aware that a developer is currently in the process of undertaking a ‘pre-application consultation’.

“Developers proposing major schemes are required to undertake this type of statutory pre-application consultation prior to submitting a planning application to the Local Planning Authority. It is important to clarify that the Local Planning Authority is not involved in this process. Therefore, residents should respond directly to the developer (ERI Reclamation) and not the Local Planning Authority if they want their comments to be taken into account as part of this pre-application consultation process.

“The Leader of Council, Cllr Sean Morgan is keen to provide reassurance to local residents, “If a formal planning application is received, then appropriate consultation will take place so that all stakeholders in the community have the opportunity to provide feedback, before the matter is determined by the Planning Committee.”

“I hope this helps clarify the current position and please be assured that any such scheme would be subject to robust scrutiny and would also require a range of conditions and control measures to minimise the impact of any planned works.”